Joseph J. Feeney

Poor, dear, old Mother Machree: in these nine stories she’s long dead and buried, God rest her and keep her. Her sons aren’t doing very well either. These nine tales show sons no longer connecting with mothers, mothers no longer close to their sons. A grand storyteller, Colm Tóibín uncovers dark truths about family relationships in today’s Ireland and, in a long final story, in Spain’s Catalonia.

I had long wanted to read Tóibín (pronounced toy-BEAN) since I teach modern Irish and British fiction, and last summer I noticed that Dublin bookshops featured his new, prizewinning novel, The Master (2004), about the American novelist Henry James. It was a big, big book, though, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to get through it, so I left it—even autographed copies of it—on the display tables. Now come these short stories, a perfect opportunity to sample his work.

Born in County Wexford in 1955, Colm Tóibín has written a number of novels, stories, essays and a play, and won major prizes. He has lived in Barcelona, Buenos Aires and elsewhere, been a visiting writer at Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin, and has now come home to Ireland as a Dubliner. He knows his native land well, surely, and understands Irish ways and Irish secrets—how long to stay at a wake, for example: “the man would have to wait for at least ten minutes before he could decently go.” He knows the layers of Irish concealment: “the feeling that behind everything lay something else...that a person was merely a disguise for another person, that something said was merely a disguise for something else.” He knows Irish meanness, too, as in this exchange between Father Greenwood and Molly O’Neill: “‘I’d say people will be very kind,’ he said. ‘Well, you don’t know them then,’ she replied.”

In Mothers and Sons, mothers worry about money, or about the past, or about what people will think, and at times they drink too much. Sons turn to silence, depression or crime, inhabiting at once an old culture of loneliness and a new culture of drugs and gay sex. Both mothers and sons stand awkwardly poised between past and present. An older mother hates to use phones and answering machines. A younger mother, once a folk singer, doesn’t want her son to hear her old records. Mrs. O’Neill learns e-mail to communicate with her grandchildren, chillingly noting, “I’m one of those mothers who prefers her grandchildren to her children.” She also learns that her priest-son has abused teenage schoolboys. As for the sons, one steals paintings and remembers his terrible days in a reformatory school. One hears his estranged mother singing in a pub but refuses to meet her. One goes to a drug-rave on a remote beach between Drogheda and Dundalk, takes a cold swim in the Irish Sea and has sexual relations with men. A painful realism marks this fiction.

As an artist, Tóibín is a traditional storyteller, so sure a stylist that he pares his words to the minimum, so confident a plot-master that he can end a story without resolving the plot yet leave a reader fully satisfied. And his ear for dialogue is dead-on: “How are you at all, Nancy?” or, “It’s fresh and well you are looking,” or, “I’ll go and wet the tea.”

Though not himself a believer, Tóibín also has an Irish-Catholic imagination. Mourners bless themselves before a coffin, and a priest says graveside prayers. A singer sounds “like an altar boy,” and an aunt is “the holiest one in the family.” The painfully contemporary story of the abusive priest bears the ironic title “A Priest in the Family,” playing off a proverb for Irish respectability, “A well in the yard; a bull in the field; and a priest in the family.” The priest’s mother even “wondered if they would let him say Mass when he was in prison, or have his vestments and his prayer books.”

Tóibín’s best stories are the longest: “The Name of the Game,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “A Priest in the Family,” “A Long Winter.” In the first, Nancy Sheridan, newly widowed, finds that her small supermarket does not make enough money to keep her and her son and daughters, and opens a chip shop (with fish and burgers) and an off-license (liquor) shop. Her son Gerard soon becomes caught up in the business, begins to scorn school and develops a manly swagger as he matures. His mother, no longer satisfied with her small town, plans a move to Dublin but doesn’t tell her son. Finally hearing the news, Gerard is disillusioned, disappointed, “close to tears,” while his mother, unconcerned, said “she would be back in a while and walked out into the square.”

The final story, “A Long Winter,” set in the Catalonian Pyrenees, shows another family curled in upon itself. The men are shepherds: patient father, gay older son Miquel, younger son Jordi, who goes to serve in the army. The housebound mother is an alcoholic, and when her husband finally throws away her drink, she flees into the mountain snow. Miquel searches for her without success, seeking signals from the vultures.

Tales of unspoken feelings, rejected bonds, untaken opportunities: Mothers and Sons, always tasteful and restrained, is a troubling, compelling, riveting collection by a contemporary master.

Joseph J. Feeney, S.J., is a professor of English at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and author of the forthcoming book The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins.